Thursday, December 20, 2007
In 2005, Mikhael Rawls, a 17-year-old countertenor (or male soprano), was denied an audition in Texas’ all-state soprano choir competition because the part is traditionally sung by a female. Although he felt most comfortable singing in that range – an octave-and-a-half higher than most boys his age – the Texas Music Educators Association said no.
But the countertenor range has gained popularity in classical and opera circles, in large part because of Chanticleer, an all-male choir ensemble from San Francisco whose six countertenors make up half of the award – winning group.
“We’ve inspired many countertenors to continue singing in that range,” says Matthew Oltman, a Chanticleer singer and assistant music director. “Our distinctive sound comes from using male-only voices and that’s how much of our repertoire was meant to be performed in the Renaissance.”
Although Oltman says Chanticleer is too small to be a choir and too big to be a quartet, its nearly-three-decade run proves the group is in the right place.
This past November, in middle of its 30th season, Chanticleer won 2008 Ensemble of the Year from Musical America, marking the first time a vocal ensemble had received the honor. Almost 10 years before, the ensemble received a Grammy for 1999’s album Colors of Love, a release devoted to contemporary choral works, which won for best small ensemble performance.
Also this fall, Chanticleer’s fifth Christmas CD, Let It Snow, was its 29th recording. It marked a new sound for Chanticleer, which used an orchestra and big band to give new depth to the choir’s almost exclusive a cappella past.
“People on the Central Coast have come to expect certain classics from us. This year is not different, but it does have a new sound to it,” says Oltman. “The [Carmel] Mission is one of our favorite venues to perform in.”
Oltman says this year’s Christmas program stretches from Renaissance polyphony to jazz to gospel. One popular holiday piece is “Ava Maria” by Franz Biebl. Chanticleer was the first group to record and perform it on a large scale.
“There are places that have not seen us perform before,” says Oltman. “But they know our music because small-scale choir groups have performed our songs, like ‘Ava Maria.’ ”
The ensemble’s performances have an intimate appeal that brings Chanticleer closer to its audience.
“We want viewers to get a well-rounded music experience,” Oltman says. “We’re consciously inviting with our music, to share our enlightening journey with them.”
The group’s origins date back to 1978 in San Francisco, where Louis Botto, the group’s founder, was a graduate student in musicology. He thought it strange that many selections he studied – vocal music of the medieval and Renaissance periods – rarely were performed.
To bring the classic music the recognition Botto felt it deserved, he formed a group consisting of male-only voices.
The original group needed a name. One founding member, baritone Charlie Erikson, was reading The Canterbury Tales when the name Chanticleer caught his eye. The name derives from French, where Chaucer borrowed it from Renard the Fox. It is a combination of the words “chanter,” meaning to sing, and “clair,” translating to clear. The ensemble felt the name appropriate and it stuck.
Its members, meanwhile, stick with Chanticleer as long as they can. “Life after Chanticleer is always an interesting question in the group,” Oltman says. He worked with the UC Berkeley chorus this past fall. “I do enjoy conducting, but whatever I do, it will be musical.”
CHANTICLEER performs 6pm and 8:30pm Friday, Dec. 21, at Carmel Mission, 3080 Rio Rd., Carmel. $25-$44. 624-1271.